Missile tests put North Korea on Trump’s front burner

By Thomas Watkins, AFP

WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump is facing his biggest foreign policy challenge yet after North Korea fired a ballistic missile salvo in a supposed training run for an attack on U.S. bases in Japan. Pyongyang blasted at least four missiles across the ocean toward its eastern neighbor on Monday, and three of the rockets splashed down into waters within Japan’s Exclusive Economic Zone. The latest tests mark the end of what had been a quiet spell in North Korean weapons testing — with little activity since Trump’s election in November — and propels the long-simmering issue to the White House front burner. Trump in January had tweeted that North Korea’s stated goal of building a long-range nuclear missile to hit the U.S. mainland “won’t happen” — but he never provided details. After North Korea said the missile launches were training for a strike on U.S. bases in Japan, where about 50,000 American troops are stationed, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Trump spoke by phone and warned the threat from North Korea had “entered a new stage.” Trump must now define what exactly that means, and what America’s response will be.

“We are in a very tenuous situation with not a lot of leverage, not a lot of initiative in terms of negotiations,” a senior defense official told reporters recently. “So as you might imagine we are preparing for contingency operations to the degree we need to,” the official said. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is traveling to South Korea, Japan and China next week, his first visit to the region. He will discuss “strategic coordination to address the advancing nuclear and missile threat from North Korea,” State Department acting spokesman Mark Toner said. “Given North Korea’s continuing provocative behavior and actions, the U.S. is actively engaged with its partners and allies in the region to address the threat posed,” he added. Further ramping up regional tensions is the deployment of an American anti-ballistic missile battery called THAAD, a successor to the Patriot system. China is furious about the move, even though the interceptors can only be used for defense and cannot directly engage Chinese missiles.